Thoughts on economics and liberty

Is population a problem? #1

I'm pulling out some material from here and there for quick reference. This series of posts has been prompted by some improperly "educated" India's trying to fight back against little Nargis, and arguing in defence of Azad.

First, a few blog posts that already cover this issue:

The demand for men regulates the production of men

India could have had 40 crore less people, with much higher standard of living

Issues regarding relative fertility between Hindus and Muslims

First, Barun Mitra's article of 1998. I'll try to publish a few more separately (including a preliminary draft from DOF).

Debate topic: Is there a population problem? 
 
Economic Times-Tuesday, 24 September 1998, by Barun Mitra:
If there is one issue on which facts and opinion on it diverges dramatically, it is population. And ironically, even at a time of increasingly fractured polity, rather than fuelling a debate this anomalous situation seems to be contributing to a broad consensus.
 
Consider the unanimous resolution of parliament, last year, on the occasion of the 50th year of Independence. Or the National Agenda for Governance of the present BJP-led coalition government which speaks of "a suitable and judicious mix of incentives and disincentives for population control shall be presented early so that national commitment on this critical issue is obtained". Or the recent Panchmari resolution of the Congress. All agree that population growth is one of India's most serious problems.
 
We have surely moved a long way from the 1950s, when Pandit Nehru had reportedly told J.R.D. Tata, one of the earliest advocate of population control in India, that population was India's strength.
 
The intellectual underpinning of this Malthusian line of thinking is that population growth puts a strain on limited national resources and significantly negates the developmental efforts of the state. This is patently false, and exposes the prevalence of the mind-set that even in these times of liberalisation, tends to look at the state for promoting economic development. Consequently, this shows the degree of arrogance with which our political and intellectual establishment look down up on our own people, particularly the poor (since they are often accused of unrestrained reproduction). By passing the blame on to the population for prevalence of poverty in the country, and much of the other ills, our leaders conveniently ignore their own culpability in framing policies that restricted freedom and choice, and chained the entrepreneurial skills of the people to solve their own problems.
 
Lets take a look at some of the fallacies. First, that of natural resources. As noted demographer and economist, the late Prof. Julian L. Simon of University of Maryland, USA, Lord Peter Bauer, and others have repeatedly pointed out, there is no meaningful scarcity in natural resources although the world's population has increased rapidly over the last few centuries. Prof. Simon in 1980 had a famous bet with Prof. Paul Ehrlich and a few others over the price of a few select natural resources. Prof. Ehrlich and his associates have been at the forefront of 'population growth leads to resource scarcity' point of view. The bet was settled in 1990, and it was seen that the real prices of all the five metals had indeed fallen often dramatically.
 
Not comfortable with the economic argument, many population control advocates these days point to Kerala as the model. Better health care and education facilities apparently induced a lower fertility rate. However, such social successes have not led to any comparable improvement in the economic sphere. No wonder that even the foreign remittances from Keralites are invested not in any regenerative manner but mostly in real estate and gold (two most valued assets in turbulent times!).
 
Rather than focussing on illusory problems like population growth, it is time we realised that people are not just consumers, but also producers. That more people does not only lead to greater problems, but they also find solutions to these problems.
 
As Julian Simon often said, "more people do cause problems but people are the means to solve these problems. The ultimate resource is people, especially skilled, spirited, hopeful young people who will exert their will and imagination for their own benefit and in doing so, will inevitably benefit the rest of us as well." And the brake is our lack of imagination because of which we devise policies that restrains freedom, curtail choices, and dampens the spirit of the people.
 
So let freedom reign! Let there be a consensus that if we are still among the poorest in the world, it is not because of our population, but because of our policies. We have been wasting one of the most precious resource possible – the people. That is our problem. 

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4 thoughts on “Is population a problem? #1
  1. tilopa

    I agree with everything you said but….
     
     
    "Rather than focussing on illusory problems like population growth, it is time we realised that people are not just consumers, but also producers. That more people does not only lead to greater problems, but they also find solutions to these problems."
     
     
    Ok,but what if half of them are malnourished and prey on the rest of the society for their survival…without contributing anything significant ?

     
  2. sabhlok

    Tilopa

    Please read BFN. I’m afraid I can’t repeat the ENTIRE book for your sake. And please don’t give me rubbish about “half being malhourished”, etc. That’s ONLY possible under socialism (lack of freedom). If you don’t understand the BASIC argument, then you will have unnecessary questions.

    I do want to explain further but I’m afraid I have no time and so you MUST put in the effort to understand yourself, and rid yourself of your half-baked “knowledge”.

    S

     

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